Today at Central Commerce Collegiate Institute, starting at noon, there will be an Arts Block Party filled with music, visual art, and yes, Shakespeare. Students are putting on “Shakespeare in the Park”, featuring scenes from a variety of the Bard’s plays. Now, Shakespeare in the Park is not a foreign concept: it exists in many cities and this caused me to think: what is it about Shakespeare in Nature that appeals to people? Yes, his plays were originally staged in an outdoor theatre, but there is more to it isn’t there? For such a natural playwright, whose lines jump out of the page and history and permeate all parts of life, it seems likes his plays ought to jump out of the constructed world of the theatre and exist in the natural world. Of course, when dealing with the natural world you are dealing with Nature and are contesting with the elements. The sublime scenes of King Lear in the midst of the storm can be dampened by the arrival of a real storm. And do not discount critters who seek to upstage the actors who have intruded their home!
And of course Nature plays a prominent role in Shakespeare’s plays. Three plays begin with a storm at sea and a shipwreck (Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, The The Tempest), there is the storms in Macbeth, King Lear. and numerous references to flowers.
Ophelia most famously plays with the symbolism of flowers in her “mad scene.” The properties of flowers were not invented by Shakespeare, but were part of the common belief system. Some that Ophelia mention are:
Rosemary, “that’s for remembering.”
Pansies, “that’s for thoughts.”
Fennel – thought to be the symbol of flattery
Columbine – thought to be the symbol of male adultery and foolishness.
Ophelia hands both the fennel and columbine to Claudius: first flattering him and then insulting him.
And rue….that bitter flower….symbol of endless suffering and repentance of female transgressions. “You must wear your rue with a difference.”
There is an oft overlooked comedy to Ophelia’s madness, and the flowers help. Her assigning moral qualities to the characters around her is characteristic of the Fool she embodies in this moment. But she is also bringing Nature into Elsinore, this unweeded garden where nothing may grow except hate and corruption.
So when we see (or perform) Shakespeare in the park, we are recreating what Ophelia is doing – we are allowing the play to grow out of the fertile ground, we are bringing the audience out of the wooden world with plastic trees and embracing the world around us. And it may look foolish at times, and it may be risky, and the acoustics are not as good: but there is a power to “Shakespeare in the Park” of any variation that cannot be matched by any sound or lighting cue.
S.I.A IS ARTISTIC COMPANY IN RESIDENCE AT CENTRAL TORONTO ACADEMY. © SHAKESPEARE IN ACTION 2015. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.